That’s the message you might take from the recent announcement of a deferred prosecution agreement reached between the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office and UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran. The agreement resolves the criminal charges Harran faced resulting from the death of research assistant Sheharbano Sangji. She died in January 2009 as a result of burns suffered in the lab in December 2008. UCLA reached a settlement agreement with the District Attorney back in 2012.
For the most thorough coverage, go read what Chemical and Engineering News has been writing on its safety blog since at least 2010. Their reporting deserves wider readership and recognition – if for no better reason than to help shame some people who seem to think Harran is getting a raw deal.
The agreement requires Harran to perform community service in the L.A. Hospital, pay $10,000 to a burn center, and teach organic chemistry courses to incoming college students from inner-city schools for five years. For all this Harran avoids a trial, and admits no wrongdoing. This press release from UCLA suggests Harran will continue to run a lab.
If you’re upset at this, like Sangji’s family is, I don’t blame you. It certainly seems like a slap on the wrist. For better or for worse, Harran was up on charges of willfully violating occupational health and safety standards. This would be harder to prove than simple negligence, and might have prompted the District Attorney’s office to settle.
But it’s hard – at least on a visceral level – for me to accept that the best way forward is to keep Harran around running a lab as a cautionary tale. Time may prove me wrong, but given the consequences of the kind of rigor his lab applied to safety, this might be a situation where a second chance isn’t reasonable. Harran appears to be the first principal investigator to face the possibility of trial for lapses in lab safety. Sangji was not the first person to die for them. She probably won’t be the last, and it’s tough to see the agreement with Harran as trying to prevent that. As Jyllian Kemsley wrote on The Safety Zone:
“[T]o those who think Harran was scapegoated for managing his lab the same as most other synthesis labs in the country: The appropriate response here is not to say, ‘Harran did the same as everyone else, what’s the big deal?’ The appropriate response is to say, ‘Harran did the same as everyone else, and a young researcher DIED. What can we do to ensure that never, ever happens again?'”